2021 marks the 700th anniversary of the death of master poet Dante Alighieri, creator of The Divine Comedy. It’s remarkable that over half a century later this epic work remains as pertinent as ever. So why does it resonate so deeply with today’s reader, and which themes did Dante so astutely identify as timeless?
Let’s begin by reducing the main crux of Inferno to four words - the punishment of sin. Dante highlighted a range of punishable actions for which retribution would be served, among them, political corruption, abuse of power (particularly the Church), avarice, violence, inequality, decadence and, of course, rejection of Faith. So, in drawing our attention to a range of human behaviours, he asks us to explore humanity, specifically the fragility of humanity. And his work remains timeless precisely because human nature never changes. Therefore, the big themes will always present and the success of humanity will continue to hang in the balance.
The poem reveals fascinating similarities between the corruption and depravity, brutality (and also beauty) of ancient civilisations and the modern world. The underlying theme - that corruption of the Church and religious apathy threatens the spiritual stability of mankind - serves as a pertinent metaphor for the modern reader and is a timely reminder of the fragility of humanity; its ruination driven by moral and political decay, personal indifference, corporate degeneracy and the Establishment’s surrendering of its moral compass.
Let’s explore the premise that human nature - human behaviour - remains constant and consider how today’s major issues may be linked to themes in the poem. These include Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, inequalities of wealth, gender and race, exploitation, climate change, Brexit wars, etc.
The heinous abuse of power by US police in their targeting and treatment of people of colour lead to the birth of Black Lives Matter, a powerful force of humanity, a movement uprising against what is recognised as a blatant misuse of authority. Supporters’ voices are being heard loud and clear. In Dante’s world you’d find no BLM advocates upon the banks of the River Acheron at the entrance to Hell with the rabble of Uncommitted - those unprepared to take a stance on the issues of the day. But, be clear, he would have no hesitation in hurling those with authority, who abused that power, to the depths of the inferno.
Inequalities of wealth have not been consigned to the vaults of history either. How the Goddess Fortuna would be rolling in her grave on learning that Jeff Bezos of Amazon is on course to become the world’s first trillionaire while mass-scale starvation, destitution, poverty and homelessness has become a global, not just third world, phenomenon. I’m not finger-pointing at JB here, merely using him as an example of the vast disparities in the distribution of wealth. There are plenty of modern-day Midases but not, it seems, enough St Francises to remedy such inequality and ensuing poverty. Dante blasts avaricious and prodigal sinners, those guilty of hoarding or squandering their wealth thereby denying the needy, and casts them firmly into the fourth circle of Hell to endure eternal death and torture. It’s fascinating that most of these sinners are clergy.
Talking of which… The Church. That target of so much of Dante’s vitriol. He was clearly angered and frustrated by the corruption within and this institution is castigated, criticised and scolded throughout the three poems. Too lazy or distracted to shepherd their flocks, the blame for man’s religious indifference and spiritual inertia is laid firmly at the prelates’ door. Yet the ecclesiastical issues of yesteryear - corruption, abuse, greed, power - are very much prevalent today and the resultant spiritual stagnation and religious lethargy has put the modern-day Church in crisis. It’s ironic that in promoting restoration of Faith as a key message of The Divine Comedy, Dante serves us a failing Church. Is this to warn us that greed and corruption can tempt even the most virtuous, benevolent souls - indeed the fiery circles of Hell are brimming with prelates - or merely to remind us that the road to spiritual salvation is very much a personal journey?
And what of corruption and bribery? From politicians, the Church, bankers, celebrities, charities, royalty, magnates. The list is endless, and it really is shocking what money will buy. The worst? Blind eyes, deaf ears and silence. Shame on you! we collectively cry as we read tales of abuse of minors, sex trafficking, lucrative deals for personal gain, sweatshops, NDAs, exploitation, #MeToo. Heavy pockets lined with backhanders may appease such crass behaviour in the guilty parties' minds but, be clear; guilt weighs just as heavy as gilt. And where’s the remorse? The atonement? The apology? These corruptives accept little or no responsibility for their actions, minions desperately trying to hold them accountable with little success, obstructed at every turn by a network of obedient, biddable submissives, complicit by selective absence of voice or action. You can see why the poem still resonates today, can’t you?
We know The Divine Comedy was written to encourage man to restore his faith in God while society was spiritually stagnating. Dante's message is clear; man needs to avoid the inferno at all costs and a good place to start is to re-set the moral compass and stop with the sin. However, to ensure a ticket to the glory that is Paradise, one must demonstrate faith in God. Granted, he concedes, it’s difficult to buy into this concept when the clergy, peacocking in their silken robes, misusing their power and abusing their authority exemplify all that is wrong with the Church. So, man must be responsible for his own spiritual salvation and begin his individual quest for redemption. His reward for this will be deliverance to the celestial heavens.
Make no mistake. Dante's message is transparent. Man’s redemption balances precariously on one thing; restoration of Faith. Human nature has bent and weakened. Its fragile state has led to an abundance of sin. So, stop sinning. Start praying. The moral of the prose is that bad behaviour will be punished and good behaviour - for good behaviour read Faith - will be rewarded. But whilst our actions are driven by human nature, and human nature is a constant, those themes discussed in The Divine Comedy will continue to present, making it just as relevant today, 700 years later. It may yet resonate for 700 more.